Authors: Molly E. Lee
“Right. We have to move,” he agreed, and shifted toward the animal, withdrawing my knife from its body with a quick jerk.
I flinched and let him put it back in my boot for me instead of trying to do the task with my shaking fingers. He pulled me to my feet, and I spared the creature one last look before following him as we left the area as fast as we dared.
After what felt like hours of scraping over boulders, slipping between thick trees, and skirting gaps in the mountainside, he finally stopped. “We can break for a few minutes here. Should be far enough away now.”
I slipped off my pack and dug out the first-aid kit, doctoring the scratches on his arms and chest.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” he said after I’d finished.
“What do you want me to say?”
He rubbed his palms over his face as I returned the kit to my pack. “It would have
“I know,” I snapped. “Doesn’t change the fact that I had to kill a wild animal in its own terrain. I’ve never had to do that before, not with something like that. I’m supposed to document and study them, to help protect them.” The ache in the center of my chest was back, and I massaged the area like the action could soothe it if I pressed hard enough.
“Not the ruthless kind.” He stepped closer to me, wrapping me in his arms.
I breathed his scent in deep, letting it reach the places only he could. The anger burning in my stomach only slightly cooled, and I jerked out of his embrace. “We have to turn back.”
He dropped his arms that reached for me. “I get that you’re scared, and I’m sorry—”
“I have every right to be scared, Easton! Have you counted how many times one of us has almost been killed on this trip? Seriously? How can we forge ahead, when it is so clear the universe doesn’t want us to reach that cave alive?” Exhaustion settled in my bones and made my head fuzzy, the anger tinting my thoughts with red. “Snakes, falls, guns, and now jackals? What else do we need God to send down on us before we stop?”
He opened his mouth and closed it again. “We’re so close.”
“Maybe that’s why it just got worse.”
He shook his head. “I never meant for this to happen. This was supposed to be simple. You shoot, and I take you to a place I’ve been before. Maybe a few scratches along the way, but nothing this severe. I can’t apologize enough for it, Raindrop.”
The sincerity in his tone soothed my frayed nerves, and I stepped toward him. “It’s not your fault. I don’t blame you. Let’s just . . . let’s be done. We’ve got more than enough life-threatening footage to satisfy your producers. It will buy us time to return with a full crew and funds at our disposal. We don’t have to do this alone.” I spoke the words, realizing for the first time that I’d ingrained myself directly into my father’s and Easton’s lifelong hunt for King Solomon’s treasure. Somewhere between Africa and now, I’d started to
, and though we were so close, I knew it was dangerous to keep pushing on.
“Yes, we do.” Easton turned away from me, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Why? Just let this go!”
I flinched at the sharp tone of his voice and the coldness in his eyes as he returned his focus on me.
“Stop saying that to me! I
let go. I have to finish this. Now. We’re a day away, Rain. A
And then this will all be over.”
“How many times do you have to almost die before you rid yourself of whatever guilt you’re carrying around?”
He clenched his eyes shut. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s exactly like that. I’m not blind. I may not know the specifics of your pain, but I can
it as if it were my own.” I wrapped my fingers around his neck, forcing him to look down at me. “Talk to me. Let me help you work through it so you can see, whatever it is, it isn’t worth your life.”
The battle in his eyes was clear, just as it had been before. I was so close, and yet he pushed me away, walking to lean against the nearest tree. “This won’t be over until I walk through that cave tomorrow. And I need you with me. I can’t do this without you. I didn’t realize it until you were by my side, but you’re the key.”
“I’ll come back with you. When we have more help—”
I scrunched my eyebrows at him. “What do you mean?”
“This is it. If I don’t bring back viable proof that the bulk of the treasure is in Harrison’s cave, then my show is done. The producers don’t even know I’m here. They won’t take anything less than epic, and it’s my only shot to save my career.”
The simmering in my stomach returned at a full boil. “Wait. They haven’t known we were here this entire time?” I threw my arms in the air. “What if something worse had happened to one of us, Easton? Who would’ve helped?”
“I wasn’t going to let anything happen to you.”
I rolled my eyes. “And you? Who was going to take care of you?”
“I can handle myself.”
“Clearly.” I shook my head. “That’s why I’ve had to save your ass,
do. You have my back. That’s why this will work. I trust you with my life, with my heart, with everything that is left of my soul.” He yanked me to him, pressing his lips against mine in a desperate kiss.
Tears formed in the corners of my eyes as he pulled away and rested his forehead against mine. “Don’t give up on me yet, Raindrop. Please. This isn’t just about the show. I want it, I do. It’s the only way I know how to live, but it’s more than that. I have to go back. I have to finish what your father and I started nine years ago. I should’ve done it for him much, much sooner, but I was a coward.”
“No you’re not. You’re the bravest man I’ve ever known.” I sighed and closed my eyes.
“It took losing my livelihood before I found the strength to return here . . . to you.”
“But you did. Whatever has stopped you all this time, it isn’t now. And I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Truly?” His voice was barely a whisper.
“Truly.” The ache in my heart wrenched. As the exhaustion coupled with the overwhelming love—both past and present—for the man before me, my head spun in all different directions. Only one thing was certain. I couldn’t leave him. Not when he was so desperate to finish this.
I kissed him tenderly, pressing my lips to his, then to the corner of his mouth, then to the clenched eyes he refused to open. I honestly had no clue if we’d make it to the cave alive—not after everything that had tried to kill or stop us already—let alone make it out safely, but I prayed for it. I wanted to help him face whatever demon waited for him there, wanted him to let me in enough to soothe the festering wound that haunted him even in sleep. Most of all I wanted to see the man he’d become if he managed to overcome it all.
WE MADE IT
to the large stream right outside of Harrison’s cave an hour before dawn. I could smell morning in the air, a mixture of crisp wind and fresh water and full-bodied earth. The dark sky lightened to purple, coating the side of the mountain in an ink-like indigo and illuminating it enough for me to build a makeshift shelter near the water. As I packed the branches together, interweaving moist strips I had torn off with my bare hands, I thought about the water’s proximity to the cave and how it had played a role in the natural deteriorating state of it within.
The water-drop chant of the past still dripped in my ears, the warning Harrison and I had ignored like the arrogant men we’d been. There were nights I laid awake, replaying the scene over and over in my head, and each time I convinced Harrison to turn back and try again the next day. Each time I refused to move forward, forcing his decision, and we all lived happily ever after.
The process offered no relief. Instead it dug a deeper hole inside my soul, where I created my own hell of knowing I could never change the past, though I tried to regardless.
I cut my eyes to Rain as I cupped my hands and filled them with water from the stream. She set up her tent, the exhaustion evident in the slow, jagged movements she made. I took gulp after gulp of the fresh, cold water, allowing it to soothe my aching muscles from the inside. Each drink was like a deep breath I hadn’t been able to take in hours, and it soothed the pulse between my eyes.
Purple had turned to powder blue by the time I’d drank my fill and Rain had finished her work with the tent and her pack. I glanced from her to the cave entrance that was only visible to my eyes because I’d been there before. If I hadn’t, I could’ve easily mistaken the entrance for a shadow cast from the tall trees to the left of it. One had to stand in exactly the right spot to see the depth behind the darkness.
Returning my focus to Rain sitting in her tent with her head between her knees, my heart ached. The tragedy of my past, and the beautiful hope of a future I didn’t deserve, sat within a hundred feet of each other. I sucked in a breath that seemed to come from a thin vacuum as I contemplated what the day would bring, what I hoped it would bring.
Rain was the only one alive who could grant it. Taking her into the cave that had claimed her father—and a piece of my soul—didn’t seem like the smartest way to earn it, but it was too late to stop now. This expedition would either be my salvage or ruin. One way or another, I’d leave the cave a different man.
I just hoped I’d survive it long enough to honor Harrison’s memory and, perhaps, earn Rain’s forgiveness.
I wiped my wet palms on my pants and made my way over to her, crouching outside her tent. Dark circles dusted the skin beneath her eyes, and she looked like a strong wind would blow her over. She was still the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.
“We’ll take the day to rest. Start fresh tomorrow.”
She exhaled audibly. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle pushing it further today. Thank you.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t be able to, either. It wouldn’t be smart.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. “I assumed that unshakable confidence of yours would’ve led us straight into it after only an hour break.”
“A cautious man is almost as good as a confident one.” Harrison’s words rolled off my tongue with such ease it caught me off guard, and a heavy hit punched my chest. I cleared my throat. “Or so I’ve heard.”
“I like it.”
Of course she did.
“Sleep.” I motioned toward her unrolled sleeping bag within the tent. “It may get too hot toward the afternoon, so get the rest in now while you can.”
“You, too,” she said, laying on her back already.
I turned to walk to my shelter.
“Compass?” Her soft voice stopped me short, and I glanced over my shoulder at her.
“Promise you won’t go in there without me.”
I pressed my lips together. She knew me too well. I’d already contemplated whether I could manage it after the rehydration from the water I’d drank. I eyed the entrance, which did everything but call my name in invitation. A cold dread seeped into my gut, the image of seeing Harrison’s mangled body the second we set foot in there pumping me with fear. I clenched my eyes and tried to clear my mind. It’d been years. There wouldn’t be much left of him, and I doubted we’d ever get deep enough to find him—not that I didn’t plan on trying—but the odds weren’t in our favor.
“I promise, Raindrop. I’m already half dead. I’ll be asleep the second my head hits the . . . dirt.”
“Thank you.” She sighed and rubbed the sliver of sleeping bag in front of her. “I could always make room.”
I licked my lips, the offer beyond tempting. Almost as tempting as her plea had been for us to leave and come back with a team at a later date. I’d wanted to give in to her, to spill the dark secret I’d kept for far too long, and begin a new life with her if she’d have me . . . but I hadn’t been able to let go of the overwhelming need for closure. To finish what Harrison and I had started almost a decade ago. He’d deserved far better, and now I wanted to honor that.
“I’ll take you up on that offer when we’re back in the village at the base of the mountain. Deal?”
A soft smile shaped her tired lips. “Deal.” She closed her eyes, and I walked to my branch wind-block, crawling beneath it and laying on my back.